We interviewed Beaugan, a Japanese artisanal label that was founded by Christopher and Miko Okamura Hancy.
Can you talk more about your childhood and what got you both into designing?
Christopher: I’ve always been drawing as a kid. I didn’t really have video games growing up, and my mum used to work in a library, so I had to always be quiet and keep myself entertained. She gave me a box of pencils which kick-started my interest in drawing. I used to draw on the walls of the house and it drove my parents crazy – eventually, they gave up and let me paint whatever I want in my own room. I ended up painting the whole space with animals, plants and robots [laughs].
I’m also a very intense perfectionist. That automatically puts me into the world of design and products because I’ve always liked things to be very specific and perfect. I really appreciate products that work very well but also look and feel nice. That was probably why I got into fashion.
I never thought of fashion as a career when I was a teenager. Perth, where I come from, is an isolated city filled with nature. We certainly didn’t have much fashion and the concept of fashion was very new to me. But when I was around 18 years old I went to a retrospective of Yohji Yamamoto’s that was held at the State Gallery, featuring archives of his designs from the late ‘80s to modern times owned by his loyal customers who reside in Perth – it was an indirect homage to Yamamoto. Seeing these architectural, avant-garde designs, and how they flow and move – really blew my mind. Up until then, clothing to me was just T-shirts and shorts, and fashion was an alien yet interesting concept, but that first experience opened my mind to all the possibilities.
Miko: I was very playful during my childhood. My dad used to run a bar so I used to love entertaining people as a kid. He was also very good at drawing and he taught me how to draw. I really enjoyed drawing, which is similar to Christopher's story, but at the same time, my mum was really strict. She had expectations of me going to a good university, getting a good job and earning money to have a decent life, so most of the time, I was studying up to 10 hours a day – it was intense. To relax, I always pretended to study while drawing in my room. That’s probably how I got into creating something on paper.
I also went to a private all-girls school, and I was really suppressed in terms of being able to express myself through my outfit. So I kind of rebelled against it. Harajuku fashion was also mainstream at that time, and I was always wearing bright colours, strange silhouettes, asymmetrical pieces, clothing that feature different prints all over… That, combined with drawing, led me into designing.
Christopher, you started your career in fashion design in Antwerp; and Miko, you worked for Amazon in Japan. How did your paths cross and what led to you both eventually starting Beaugan together in 2017?
Christopher: I studied fashion in Australia first, but I soon realise that my teachers didn’t really know what they were talking about. They kept referring to these designers overseas, so I thought: if they’re always talking about these people overseas then isn’t that where I need to go? They would always talk about Walter Van Beirendonck, saying how great he is. So I looked him up and I saw that he had a school in Antwerp, to which I then went to directly.
While Antwerp gave me some of the most creative, fun and exciting moments in my life, it was also one of the most intense and depressing periods as well. It had the most intense highs and lows, and at one point it got too much and I needed to find a way out. At Antwerp, I’ve never really had any trouble with the design element but even after studying, I didn’t know how to make clothing. From pattern-making and construction to sewing and fabric-making, I had no basis of understanding about that side of fashion. So it’s to no surprise why I was struggling at the time – it’s because I didn’t know what I was doing, so how could I be expected to design clothes? I was looking at the students around me who seemed to struggle less in their construction element, and I found that a lot of them were from Japan. So I thought there must be something in their education where students are actually learning about construction, pattern-making, sewing and the technical aspect. And that’s why I ended up in Japan. Here, I learnt two methods of pattern-making – one, the Japanese flat pattern technique and another, draping onto the body which is European style.
I also discovered the world of Butoh while living in Japan. It’s a contemporary dance where performers are painted in white. It’s a dance that has a very surreal experience. I got really into that, and basically met Miko through that, as she has a background in Butoh.
Miko: I started working in Amazon Japan’s fashion department because I already had an interest in fashion for a long time, even though it’s a completely different world from fashion and design. But during my time there, I started to question myself: is this what I want to do? Selling cheap, poor quality designs to people and creating more waste. The manufacturing process in Bangladesh really shocked me – the sewing factories were basically slavery, and my job, ironically, was to support this situation. So I decided to quit my career and study in London. After being in London for three months, I met Christopher and he just started working on Beaugan, and he convinced me to join.
Christopher: It was almost like a serendipitous encounter. Miko was already making plans to address the fast-moving, high-production world, and what it was doing to the environment and people socially. And with Beaugan, I’ve always wanted to make something natural and sustainable without putting those two words out there. I told her that she could learn more by doing and experiencing instead of studying the theoretical component, and convinced her to join me to build the brand together. That was 2017.
Miko: Studying fashion and making garments are actually very different.
Christopher: Ironically, you don’t actually learn about the important stuff in fashion school. I didn’t learn any of those things during a year in Australia, and Antwerp was more towards self-learning… So everything I learned was from starting my brand and through all the real-world applications.
Miko: Instead of teaching you how to create garments, teachers at fashion school teach you how to think creatively.
Christopher: It’s a cultivating way of thinking. There’s no one way of designing, so that path is unique to the individual. In Antwerp, it was cultivated, and you have to make your own technique and ways to express design. That was what I learned. I think that is a very important lesson, and there’s always a constant struggle because how do you express yourself through the medium of clothing.
What does BEAUGAN mean to you both? How would you describe your craft?
Christopher: Until now, it’s pretty much been an investigation. Recently, we’ve been focusing a lot on vintage garments and analysing them, pulling them apart and seeing why they became what they are. I’m always obsessed with this idea that I need to know more about what I’m doing – it’s like insecurity. I want to make a dictionary in my head of every type of garment to use as my tools. Part of that is finding archive pieces that are not from fashion – pieces that are out there in the real world such as uniform, workwear, military clothing, as well as different fabrics from different locations and periods of time which have served humans and societies. There is a direction that I definitely want to take BEAUGAN in the future, but I feel that the olden days, for example, the hip hop era where they would take old funk records like James Brown, Funkadelic of the Amen Break, take the songs apart and recontextualise the element – they take drum beats from here and there and mash them together to create a new genre with it. Currently, with the brand, I’m at the stage where I’m sort of pulling the reference and compiling them together to head to a new direction that I have in mind. I’m still compiling and building it.
Do you find these garments and deconstruct them before reconstructing them or do you go to a certain museum and see a sculpture or vintage military garment in Japan, and take a picture to create a pattern? What’s the design process like?
Christopher: I’ve been sourcing garments for the last few seasons. Japan has a very vibrant, sort-of underground, vintage garment community. It’s a very good place for finding vintage pieces because there are maniacs who just collect and collect. They will find very unique pieces from all around the world. What I found is that when it comes to garments, there has been a very big interest, in particular, in the US military and US history. From the hippie era to the military, there are different eras to US culture, so there’s a lot of adoption of that. You can find European vintages as well because the Japanese will go to Europe and buy tonnes of clothes. It’s like record-digging – sorting through lots of pieces to find that one interesting piece. I’m not sure if anyone has done it before, but the way they were cutting military patterns in the Japanese military is very different from how they do it in the US or Europe. These are literally vintage garments that I found from some auction, and what’s crazy about these items is when you look at these vintage items from the ‘30s, you would think it’s for children because it’s so small, they look like children’s clothes.
Miko: Yeah, even I can't wear it.
Christopher: But the reality is that that’s how tall people were in that era – they were just tiny, tiny people. What we’re doing is basically analysing these garments and looking at the construction of them, and basically blowing them up into sizes that modern-day people could wear. Because Japanese people now are taller as well.
Back to what you were saying about the different ways the Japanese military cut their patterns compared to the US or Europe – what’s the biggest difference in that?
Christopher: I don’t know if it’s a theory or functionality, but the top section of the Japanese sleeves are more like suit sleeves and the bottom section will be more like T-shirt sleeves. So the bottom part will be easier to move, but the top part is very formal. It’s very difficult to explain verbally, but the sleeve construction just has a very different shape.
From a functionality perspective, it’s better as well then?
Christopher: It's just different I guess. In Europe, the shape of clothing generally comes directly from the body. So there was this system made 100 years ago where they make the dress form, and people will pin the fabric onto it which simulates the human body so you would be creating a 3D garment directly on the 3D body. Whereas the difference in Japanese pattern-making is that their clothing history comes from kimono that’s literally flat pieces of fabric that are sewn together. So the traditional Japanese will think that the pattern is also flat. They will draft out the pattern from the table and then they will put it on the body after. So the thinking of the shapes is different, because it’s 2D first to 3D, whereas European pattern makers are the other way around.
Miko: As he said, Japanese clothing history is based on kimono, so all the fabric width is really narrow. European-style garments such as vintage military pieces tend to have more panels because the fabric width is smaller, so that’s also one of the main differences between European and Japanese vintage clothing.
You guys reflect a completely different vision with BEAUGAN in terms of slow fashion – your approach to fabrics, dying and nature is one of the things that comes back a lot in BEAUGAN. For instance, I watched your documentary Born in Dirt, and it was incredible to see the way you visualize the ‘dorozome’ technique. It's very mesmerizing, so I want to dive deeper into that.
Christopher: “So dorozome is a Japanese traditional mud-dye. As far as I’m aware, it’s a very ancient form of black colour, and was the original way of making a black colour for fabric. The artisan we worked with found documents that go back to 1,300 years old – there are drawings in the museum about the process of ‘dorozome’ – the mud dye. It must’ve been imported for China thousands of years ago because they seem to have that technique there as well, but the way they do it is different. It’s actually one process within 30 different processes, each having an artisan in charge of. So 30 artisans are involved in making a particular fabric called Oshima Tsumugi, which is essentially a premium kimono fabric. Because it’s so laborious, it involves 30 artisans who basically trained their whole life just for one skill, so that would be, for example, stretching the thread or hand-dyeing some sections of the thread, making the repeat pattern for the final print, the weaving, and dorozome. There are 30 odd stages. It’s a fabric that’s taken apart and put back together, just so that in the end, they have this fabric that has a very obvious element of being handmade, and the shift in pattern is what they are after. Anyway, it’s a very labour-exhausting process and dorozome is just one of these processes.
These days, people don’t really wear kimonos as much, so there’s not a huge market like there was maybe 100 years ago, because in the olden days they wore them every day. Now, it’s only for ceremonial purposes. As a result, these Oshima Tsumugi fabrics are kind of depleting. As a result, these 30 artisans are getting out of work, and they’re also getting very old. For some of the techniques, it’s really the last people surviving right now. They are in their 70s, and once they are gone, that part of the fabric can never be restored unless someone learns it from a book or something. Hopefully, the dorozome technique will be kept alive – it would be amazing to find a way to use Tsumugi in our collections, but it’s just so prohibitively expensive because one bulk of fabric takes three to six months to make.
Miko: In terms of the dorozome process, it’s actually a kind of natural dye. They use a kind of tree bark to colour the fabric, which makes this pink colour. For example, indigo dye is from the indigo plant, you ferment the indigo plant to make it dyeable. Techigi, the tree bark which is native to Amami Island, is collected by artisans who ferment it using the PH ratio…
Christopher: So natural dying is all about PH. It’s a kind of chemical but it’s primitive chemical dying. These people from a thousand years ago found out about this – they don't know the chemistry behind it, but what they’re actually doing is chemical reactions. Just by playing with mud and plants, they made this colour.
Miko: So what happens is that techigi makes it a reddish-pink colour, and once it reacts with the iron found in the Amami Island’s soil it turns brown. So if you keep repeating the steps, it will become a darker brown. To make a black or blue colour, you combine it with indigo. So that’s kind of how they do dorozome colours in Japan.
Christopher: You need to keep cycling through the process because the PH will keep changing, so after you dye it in the mud, you need to re-dye it in the bark, then repeat it all over again.
Miko: That's why he said that this process takes time and why it is expensive – it’s all handwork.
Christopher: We tried once. When we did it it was only a very faint colour. The amount of time we need to dye to make it dark brown is just insane. The artisan said it takes at least 80 to 100 times.
Miko: It’s not like pigment or paint, it’s just a reaction to the iron and the bark pigment.Christopher: Natural dye tends to be like that. They’re kind of almost mystical when you watch them in action because it’s like you are extracting solutions out of the plants. They react with the metal component, and you can actually see the colour change in the dyeing pot – it’s really magical. It’s different from pigment dye as the dye is really a chemical reaction rather than just like pigment or paint. It’s a very pure colour.